History Column

History, History Column

Historic Anomaly: Benjamin Banneker 1731 – 1806

by ©2022 Sarah Becker Baltimore, 1791: “The Editors of the Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia ALMANACK, feel themselves gratified in the Opportunity of presenting to the Public, through the Medium of their Press, what must be considered an extraordinary Effort of Genius—a complete and accurate EPHEMERIS for the Year 1792, calculated by a sable Descendant of Africa, who, by the Specimen of Ingenuity, evinces, to Demonstration, that mental Powers and Endowments, are not the exclusive Excellence of white People, but that rays of Science may alike illumine the Minds of Men of every Clime, (however they may differ in the Colour of their Skin).” Benjamin Banneker, America’s first Black man of Science compiled The ALMANACK in the 1790s. Banneker was born in Baltimore County, Maryland—a slave state—on November 9, 1731: of a free mother and formerly enslaved father. He grew up free on the family’s multi-acre tobacco farm and briefly attended a Quaker school. “Benjamin Banneker’s place, as a self-educated master of mathematics and astronomy, makes him an ideal subject for African-American history,” Maryland’s Benjamin Banneker Historical Park & Museum said. “Benjamin Banneker, a free Negro, has calculated an Almanack, to the ensuing year, 1792, which being desirous to dispose of to the best advantage, he has requested me to aid his application to you,” Baltimore’s James McHenry wrote Editors Goddard and Angell on August 26, 1791. “Having fully satisfied myself…I may venture to assure you it will do you credit as Editors. McHenry, a military surgeon, was white; a Founding Father and signer of the 1787 Constitution between the States. “He is about fifty-nine years of age,” McHenry continued. “His father and mother having obtained their freedom, were enabled to send him to an obscure school, where he learned, when a boy reading, writing; and to leave him in…

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Taking Care of Mother Earth

by ©2022 Sarah Becker The amount of future warming Earth will experience depends on how much carbon dioxide [CO2] and other greenhouse gases [GHG] we humans emit in the coming decades. GHG are any of the gaseous components that trap heat in the atmosphere. The most abundant greenhouse gas, CO2 is the product of burning fossil fuels [coal, natural gas and oil; solid waste and trees, and chemical reactions like with cement]. In 2019 carbon dioxide accounted for 80% of U.S. greenhouse gases, methane 10%. “There is no good reason why we should fear the future,” President and conservationist Theodore Roosevelt [R-NY] said in 1905, “but there is every reason why we should face it seriously, neither hiding from ourselves the gravity of the problems before us nor fearing to approach these problems with the unbending, unflinching purpose to solve them aright.” Today’s U.S. Western mega- drought is “the worst in 1200 years.” Earth Day was first celebrated 52 years ago—on April 22. Why, to advocate on behalf of environmentalism. “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, crippling drought, and more powerful storms,” President Barack Obama [D-IL] said in his 2013 Inaugural Address. “The path towards sustainable energy sources will be…difficult,” Obama continued. “But Americans cannot resist this transition…We cannot cede to the other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries.” Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Catalyst is investing $1.5b in clean technology projects including direct air capture, green hydrogen, long-duration energy storage, and sustainable aviation fuel. “Now is the time for the unstoppable courage to preserve and protect our health, our families, our livelihoods,” the Earth Day website insists. “We need to act (boldly), innovate (broadly), and implement (equitably). It’s going to take all…

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Virginia Fitzhugh Wheat Thomas and Colored Rosemont       

Written by ©2022 Sarah Becker “The idea of slavery being connected with the Black Colour, and Liberty with the White, where false Ideas are twisted into our Minds, it is with difficulty we get fairly disentangled,” New Jersey Quaker John Woolman [1720-1772] wrote. The time has come to articulate a historical truth, to acknowledge a woman black Alexandria homeowner Stanley Greene describes as “an abolitionist-minded angel.” March is Women’s History Month: her name is Virginia Fitzhugh Wheat Thomas (1893-1987). A descendant of William Fitzhugh The Immigrant [1651-1701]; an indirect descendant of The Immigrant’s great grandson William Fitzhugh of Chatham [1741-1809]; his son William Henry Fitzhugh [1792-1830] of Ravensworth and Alexandria; granddaughter of Benoni [1823-1902] and Matilda Taliaferro Fitzhugh Wheat [1831-1885], daughter of Wheat & Suter real estate developer Harrie Fitzhugh [1866-1912] and Kate Duncan Houck Wheat [1869-1899]. Virginia was an inspired realtor whose post-World War interpretation of home ownership contributed to the construction of Alexandria’s Colored Rosemont. “The verdict of our voters…enjoins upon the people’s servants the duty of exposing and destroying the brood of kindred evils which are the wholesome progeny of paternalism,” President Grover Cleveland [D-NY] said in Virginia Fitzhugh Wheat’s birth year, in his 1893 Inaugural Address. “If in lifting burdens from the daily life of our people we reduce inordinate and unequal advantages too long ignored, this is but a necessary incident of our return to right and justice.” On May 18, 1896—the same year the National Association of Colored Women formed—the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “all railway companies carrying passengers in their coaches…shall provide equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races.” [Plessy v. Ferguson 163U.S.537 (1896)] Soon after, the Reconstruction-era “Colored Republicans…served notice.” The lily-whites reply: rewrite Virginia’s constitution. The Commonwealth’s new constitution became final in 1902, Benoni Wheat’s death year….

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”Secession is Nothing But Revolution” – Lee Surrenders

by ©2022 Sarah Becker On April 1, 1865, Union General Philip H. Sheridan, in the last important battle of the Civil War, crushed a Confederate assault at Five Forks, Virginia. The Confederate army withdrew from Petersburg the next day. On April 3 Union troops entered Petersburg and Richmond—the Confederate capital—and the South’s War of Northern Aggression, America’s Civil War came to an end. President Abraham Lincoln [R-IL] arrived in Richmond on April 5 and settled into Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ chair. “The South, in my opinion, has been aggrieved by the acts of the North,” Confederate General Robert E. Lee told Confederate General A.L. King in his Memoirs of Robert E. Lee. “I feel the aggression and am willing to take every proper step for redress. It is the principle I contend for, not individual or private benefit. As an American citizen I take great pride in my country, her prosperity, and her institutions, and would defend any State if her rights were invaded. But I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union. It would be an accumulation of all the evils we complained of, and I am willing to sacrifice everything but honor for its preservation. I hope, therefore, that all constitutional means will be exhausted before there is resort to force.” “Secession is nothing but revolution,” Lee continued. “The framers of our Constitution never exhausted so much labor, wisdom and forbearance in its formation, and surrounded it with so many guards and securities, if it was intended to be broken by every member of the Confederacy at will. It is intended for ‘perpetual union,’ so expressed in the preamble.” Lee was the son of Revolutionary War hero Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee. Union General Ulysses S. Grant called for Lee’s surrender on…

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January 6th – One Year Later…..

Written by ©2021 Sarah Becker Copyright ©2021 Sarah Becker January 6th – One Year Later….. “A nation’s character, like that of an individual, is elusive,” World War II Navy and Marine Medal recipient John F. Kennedy professed in 1946. “It is produced partly by the things we have done and partly by what has been done to us. It is the result of physical factors, intellectual factors, and spiritual factors. It is well for us to consider our American character, for in peace, as in war, we will survive or fail according to the measure.”  So the 2022 New Year begins. “Acquiring the qualities of virtue requires consistent effort,” Benjamin Franklin observed. “Pleasure, position, popularity, wealth and appearance are among the whistles in life…for which many people pay too much.” Franklin considered character and integrity to be one. And so the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th [2021] Attack on the United States Capitol continues. “Almost all the literature in the first 150 years or so focused on what could be called the Character Ethic…things like integrity, humility, fidelity, temperance, courage, justice, patience, industry, simplicity, modesty, and the Golden Rule,” Stephen Covey author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People wrote. Matthew 7:9-12, NIV Archaeological Study Bible: “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him? So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” “Shortly after WWI the basic view shifted from the Character…

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To ‘Heed’ or Not to ‘Heed’…

by ©2021 Sarah Becker To ‘Heed’ or Not to ‘Heed’… “There are errors in our National Government which call for correction,” George Washington wrote on May 18, 1786. “Ignorance & design are difficult to combat. Out of these proceed illiberality, improper jealousies, and a trail of evils…[T]o be so fallen!—so lost! is really mortifying.” The American Heritage dictionary defines illiberality as “obedience to one’s opinions or prejudices; narrow-mindedness, lacking tolerance or breadth of view.” Today’s dilemma: after two years of medical suffering—of living with the COVID-19 pandemic—many Americans still refuse to get vaccinated, to pay heed to vaccine need. Economists define a public good as a good that is non-excludable and non-rivalrous; where no one can be excluded from its use and where the use by one does not diminish the availability of the good to others. Classic examples include clean air, clean water, and national security. Nobel prize-winning author Paul Samuelson confirmed such in 1954. The common good is that which benefits society as a whole; something—like mass vaccinations—that can only be achieved through a mix of political procedures and the collective of citizen participation. John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society suggests that public goods are things that “must be provided for everyone if they are to be provided for anyone, and they must be paid for collectively or they cannot be had at all.” Health, generally, is not considered a public good. Public health however is “inextricably linked to government action and the provision of public goods.” Public health, as illustrated by herd immunity [Smallpox, Tuberculosis, and COVID-19] represents a collective benefit from which no one is excluded. Yet in September, 2021, Representative Jim Jordan [R-OH] called “vaccine mandates un-American;” implying founding father George Washington opposed compulsory vaccinations. I would have thought a winning wrestler with a Masters’…

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America’s First National Museum: The Smithsonian Arts & Industries Building

by Sarah Becker Copyright ©2021 Sarah Becker America’s First National Museum: The Smithsonian Arts & Industries Building   In 1879 greenbacks reached a face value with gold; Congress granted female lawyers the right to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court, and the California maxim “the Chinese must go” was popular. Thomas A. Edison discovered that “a thread of carbonized cotton in one-millionth of an atmosphere would burn for 45 hours without overheating,” and Congress passed a bill “allowing a sum…sufficient to erect a fire-proof edifice…commensurate with the size and value of the [Smithsonian’s] many specimens.” America’s first National Museum: the Smithsonian’s Arts & Industries Building [AIB] opened to the public in 1881. Designed by architect Adolf Cluss, the building—“far ahead of its time: sustainable, efficient, and stunningly elegant”—temporarily reopens this month. A severe 2004 snowstorm raised concerns about the stability of the structure and forced the museum to close. The Smithsonian’s second oldest building—the Castle is the first—the AIB is described as “more than a museum.” It was “an incubator; a hall of invention, and the mother of museums.”  The opening celebration was grand. Crowds poured in to see Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone; the first cast of a blue whale, “remarkable treasures that…showcased geology, metallurgy, zoology, medicine, anthropology, art, history and technologies.” “It is not generally known that the functions of the National Museum and the Smithsonian are entirely different,” The New York Times wrote in 1879. “The object of the former is the establishment of a collection of specimens, natural and artistic, which shall exhibit the resources of the country, or present at a glance the materials essential to a condition of high civilization which exists in the different States of the Union; to show the various processes of manufacture which have been adopted by us, as well as…

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Ratification ERA – 2021

by ©2021 Sarah Becker Ratification ERA – 2021 Sometimes fate has a way of writing a new chapter. In truth, the ongoing fight for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment [ERA] has left me fatigued. But now—with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s resignation—for reason of sexual misconduct—the arrival of New York State’s first female Governor, the AFL-CIO’s first female President—the political worm has turned. On March 17, 2021, the U.S. House of Representatives again passed the Equal Rights Amendment. My only question: By what date will Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin [D-IL], Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer [D-NY] deliver an affirmative vote? The American Heritage dictionary defines chauvinism as the “prejudiced belief in the superiority of one’s own group.” The Oxford American Dictionary defines chauvinism as “excessive or prejudiced support or loyalty;” a male chauvinist as a “man showing excessive loyalty to men and prejudice against women.” The New Jersey constitution “granted the right to vote to ‘all free inhabitants’ thus enfranchising women until 1807: when a new state constitution restricted suffrage to males.” The U.S. Census Bureau defined the term free inhabitant in 1790. “Assistant marshals listed the name of each head of household, and asked the following questions: The number of free White males aged under 16 years, of 16 years and upward; Number of free White females; Number of other free persons, and Number of slaves. Free inhabitants were not listed individually until 1850. In one of the colonial era’s few examples of women’s suffrage, Lady Deborah Moody was permitted to vote in a Long Island town meeting in 1655. Of greater interest—to me at least—was the women’s literacy measure. “The determination was made on the basis of women’s ability to sign their names to documents with either an ‘X’ or a written signature. Massachusetts’ illiteracy…

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September 11, 2001 – Twenty Years Later

History by ©2021 Sarah Becker September 11, 2001 – Twenty Years Later In October 2001—twenty years ago in this column—I wrote: “On September 11 a group of hateful terrorists turned commercial airplanes into weapons and bombed The Pentagon and the World Trade Center.  More than six thousand Americans are missing and the death toll continues to rise.  The FBI has code named the egregious episode PENTBOM. Alexandrians are well aware of the disaster.  Phone service was interrupted.  F16s fly overhead, and the Coast Guard defends the Potomac River.  The Capitol is vulnerable and so are we!” Although the day’s events are behind us still we remember those who died: at the Pentagon, in New York City, and near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.  I watched the Pentagon burn; from my front stoop.  The smoke, the airborne particles darkened an otherwise blue sky. “The Arab perpetrators did not act on behalf of nation-states,” my 2001 column continued.  “They are self-determined hijackers who belonged in terrorist cells in as many as 50 countries.  Retaliation is inevitable and as Americans we must now ask ourselves, at what cost does good overcome evil?” On September 11, 2001, America seemed unassailable.  The Soviet Union had fallen and the millennial mood was optimistic.  President George W. Bush [R-TX] was settling into office.  His arrival was controversial, his focus mostly domestic.  Bush considered treaties “as counter to U.S. self-interest.” “The enemies of liberty and our country should make no mistake: America remains engaged in the world by history and by choice, shaping a balance of power that favors freedom,” President Bush forewarned in his January 20, 2001, Inaugural Address.  “We will defend…our interests.  We will meet aggression and bad faith with resolve.” When President Bush first heard news of the 9/11 World Trade Center tragedy his advisors assumed the crash…

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The Art of a Nation

by ©2021 Sarah Becker The Art of a Nation “The art of a nation is one of its most refining influences, and is the highest expression of its civilization and culture,” The New York Times wrote in 1918.  “Artistic endeavor must be preserved, for the history of a nation cannot be written without due regard to its artistic attainments: in many cases the art of a nation is the only thing that has come down to us.” August is Art Appreciation month and however cultural antiquities are defined—as art and or architecture—drawing, printmaking, painting, sculpture—monuments and or buildings—destruction is often associated with belligerent behavior.  American history offers several examples of cultural destruction, including the British burning of Washington in 1814. Whether the loss is associated with the War of 1812, World Wars I&II, China’s Cultural Revolution, ISIS, or the January 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol the resulting devastation is undeniable. “Damage to the interior of the U.S. Capitol building was largely limited to shattered glass and broken furniture; the U.S. Capitol Rotunda doors; blue paint tracked through the hallways and graffiti,” The New York Times reported.  “Statues including Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson, murals, and historic benches were damaged, as were several paintings.  Chemical residue was found on two presidents portraits.” The events of January 6, 2021, were “difficult for the American people and extremely hard for all of us on campus to witness,” Architect of the Capitol J. Brett Blanton then said.  Fortunately, “the eight monumental paintings in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, including The Baptism of Pocahontas, were assessed by a professional conservator following the assault and no significant damage was found.” Alexandria-born artist John Gadsby Chapman’s 12’ by 18’ oil on canvas—The Baptism of Pocahontas—was installed in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda on November 30, 1840, and remains on…

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